I wrote previously of some plans I had for building 3D models of two or three ships from the late eighteenth-century and Victorian Royal Navy. One of these ships will be the huge first-rate steam battleship HMS Marlborough. But there are some interesting questions surrounding her armaments. This article will highlight the discrepancies in published sources, but for now at least, there won’t be any conclusive answers. I’m not going to prattle on about the history of this ship here. Check out the Wikipedia article for a brief run-down of the key points.

How many guns? And what types?!

What is the uncertainty? Marlborough‘s listed as a 131-gun ship, so carried 131 guns, right? Well, possibly not. Whilst Duke of Wellington, according to Andrew Lambert in Battleships in Transition was indeed armed with 131 guns, he suggests that her sister-ship Marlborough received only 121 guns (page 127). These being in the same, or similar, configuration as assigned to HMS Victoria a few years later, namely (from page 122).

Lambert’s suggested figures

  • Gundeck: 32-8in/65cwt
  • Middle Deck: 30-8in/65cwt
  • Main Deck: 32-32pdr/58cwt
  • Upper Deck: 26-32pdr/42cwt, 1-68pdr/95cwt

Winfield’s figures

Enter Rif Winfield, and British Warships in the Age of Sail 1817—1863. On page 20, he states that she carried 131 guns, in the configuration of:

  • Gundeck: 10-8in/65cwt, 26-32pdr/56cwt
  • Middle Deck: 6-8in/65cwt, 30-32pdr/56cwt
  • Main Deck: 38-32pdr/42cwt
  • Upper Deck: 20-32pdr/25cwt, 1-68pdr/95cwt

This is the same armament that Lambert ascribes to HMS Duke of Wellington (excepting one typo in Lambert), and so begs the question: who is right?

For someone wanting to reproduce the ship in some form (digital, in my case), this presents a bit of a conundrum! It’s important to recognise that not only were the ships changing rapidly at this time, but the guns they carried were just beginning to as well. All of the published sources give a single snapshot of the armament configuration. I assume that this is always for the early part of her career (1858-1861).

Photo Evidence

There is a decently high resolution photo on the internet of Marlborough lying at anchor in Grand Harbour, Valletta. Unfortunately, the photo is essentially undated, depicting the ship at any time between 1858 and 1864. I currently think she is shown prior to the 1861 refit, for reasons given below.

Count the guns!

The photo is clear enough to allow me to count the guns on each deck, to some degree. I have highlighted on the photo in green to indicate a port where I can see a gun, red where I can see that there is no gun, and yellow where I can’t tell either way. I can’t really see any of the Weather Deck ports, perhaps only two or three indistinctly, nevermind what’s in them. One towards the stern looks like it might have a gun in it, but I’m not totally certain.

HMS Marlborough in Grand Harbour, Valletta, probably sometime between 1858 and 1860. Gunports have been highlighted to indicate the presence, or otherwise, of a gun
HMS Marlborough lying at anchor in Grand Harbour, Valletta, sometime between 1858 and 1864. Original image source: Naval Analyses via Reddit.

In case you are wondering, there is no doubt this is HMS Marlborough. We can clearly make out the figurehead, and this survives to this day on public display in Portsmouth. On the Gundeck, I count 17 definite guns in ports – so 34 in total for the deck. That’s immediately more than Lambert gives her. Barring the unlikely possibility she had more guns on the port side than the starboard, we can say that his figures are therefore wrong for the gundeck. So she was carrying at least 34 guns of indeterminate type there.

On the Middle Deck, I again count 17 guns. Even if we subtract my forward-most positive (based on a shadow), it still gives us 32 for the deck, which is more than Lambert states. It is a similar situation on the Main Deck, with 19 positives. This totals 38 for the deck, matching Winfield’s figures.

Identifying the guns

There’s little point trying to spot differences in gun barrel sizes. According to Boxer’s Diagrams of Guns, the muzzle diameter of the Blomefield 32pdr was 16.45 inches (at the flare). On the 8-inch shell gun, it was actually slightly smaller at 16 inches – there’s no way to distinguish half an inch at this resolution!

HMS Marlborough 1861 plans

I visited the Brass Foundry in Woolwich, home to the National Maritime Museum’s ship plan archives. The superbly helpful people there laid out the plans they had of Marlborough for me to view. Sadly, her original lines plan is in very poor condition so could not be viewed. The ones that I did see, and subsequently obtained copies of, were of the ship as-fitted in 1861. There is evidence in the form of excerpts from the logs of HMS Donegal, published in The Times, that HMS Marlborough returned to England in early 1861.

From the evidence of the 1861 plans, this was presumably to undergo a repair or refit at Portsmouth. One of the purposes of this refit being to swap out at least some of her guns for newer types. These plans would have been drawn up from measurements taken of her when she was docked there. They give us some clues as to the nature of her armament from late 1861 onwards, when she returned to Valletta to resume her role as flagship there until replaced by Victoria in 1864.

While naval guns of this period still did not appear on ships’ plans, by the mid-nineteenth century the drawings were well-annotated. There are numerous references on these plans to shot stowage throughout the ship. Several of these mention 40 lb Armstrong shot, as well as 8-inch ‘shot’ (which I assume to be shells). On the forecastle we find a reference to 100 lb Armstrong shot. By the time this gun entered service, it was firing 110 pound shot. We know it today as the 110-pounder, or RBL 7-inch Armstrong gun – there is a replica mounted on the forecastle of Warrior. (RBL = Rifled Breech Loader).

Deck Plans

I have loosely redrawn Marlborough‘s deck plans from my copies of the 1861 originals, to indicate the ammunition stowage arrangements. The plans quite clearly state that HMS Marlborough was a ship of 131 guns.

Details from the 1861 deck plans of HMS Marlborough, showing the locations of shot stowage marked on the plans

Gun Deck

The Gun Deck plan probably has too little information to reach any real conclusion. It is nonetheless interesting that the only ‘shot’ stowage indicated is for 8in ordnance. The circles drawn around the capstan match the 8in ‘shot’ annotated on the Middle Deck plan. Although the word ‘shot’ is used, these must surely have been shells.

Baldwin Wake Walker, the Surveyor for the entire period this ship was in active service, opposed fitting the 95cwt 68pdr guns (calibre 8in) as main battery weapons on wooden ships. They required larger gunports and more room between each piece to operate effectively. It does appear that he was in favour of arming the gundecks on his battleships with a uniform 8in shell gun armament, however. These plans would therefore suggest that HMS Marlborough carried only the 65cwt 8in shell gun on her lower deck. If so, they were probably left untouched by the 1861 refit.

Middle Deck

On the Middle Deck we find a considerable mixture of shot. There is stowage indicated and annotated for 6in shot (which can only be 32pdr shot), 8in shot (more likely shells, see above), and Armstrong 40pdr shot. It was around this time that Armstrong’s guns were being loaded onto ships to replace 32pdr guns. From the quantity of 32pdr shot racks present, several must have remained on this deck. The 40pdr guns, despite firing heavier shot, were much lighter guns than the Blomefield 32pdrs. They may have been fitted at the ship’s extremeties, with a small number of the 65cwt 8-in shell guns in the centre, and 32pdrs making up the rest. The indicated arrangements lend more weight to Winfield’s data for her pre-61 armaments.

Main Deck

Both Lambert and Winfield give the 1858 Marlborough a uniform 32pdr armament on her Main Deck. Lambert gives the newer 58 cwt Dundas guns, while Winfield suggests the lighter Monck C guns instead. We see on these plans that these were all likely replaced in 1861 with a uniform Armstrong 40pdr armament.

Weather Deck

On the Weather Deck, we have 32pdr shot in ready-use racks, and a store of Armstrong 100pdr shot. As mentioned above, this would in reality have been 110pdr shot. Armstrong’s new and untested 100/110pdr gun was fitted to the forecastles of many ships at this time, replacing the 68pdr/95cwt guns they carried there on pivot mounts. The 25cwt ‘gunnades’ that Winfield calls out for 1858 were an unusual piece, especially so on a new first rate. If she had been fitted with these, it seems unlikely to me that they would have remained on board in ’61. Therefore, I lean towards Lambert’s 42cwt Monck C guns.

Orlop Deck

The scuttles and stowage arrangements on the Orlop Deck are of interest, despite no guns being carried there. You can clearly see that the majority of accessible stowage on this level was given over to the Armstrong shot. This suggests that the 40pdr gun was prominent throughout the ship.

Back to the photo

Returning for a moment to the photo above, if I look very closely at the gun barrels protruding through the gun ports, I don’t see any that make me think they are Armstrong 40pdrs. I think that the photo likely dates to before 1861, based on this one admittedly very weak point. Armstrong guns do not have flared muzzles, whereas I can just about convince myself in most cases in the photo that I can see a slight flare. It is a little too-low resolution for it to be anything more than a hint, unfortunately.

Armstrong guns

The 40pdrs appear to have been relatively well-regarded, but the 110pdrs were quickly found to be poor guns. These were both of the new-fangled rifled breech-loading type, and Armstrong’s solution was to use a removable vent piece. Manufacturing methods of the time were not capable of creating a tight-enough seal with the vent block. The escaping gases quickly erroded it and made these guns something of a liability. To make matters worse, the damage potential of the 110pdr shot was found to be lower than the 68pdr ball of the old gun. The 110pdrs were adopted on the strength of the 40pdrs, and saw no testing beforehand!


As I predicted at the top of the page, we can’t take away too much from this. I think it’s safe to say that when the photo of HMS Marlborough was taken, she mounted 131 guns. If I can find a reliable source that refines the date the photo was taken, that will help immensely.

As to what types of guns they were, none of this helps clarify that question at all. Clearly Lambert found something in the logs or progress books that made him tie the armament figures in with the Victoria‘s. I can only speculate at this stage. For a model builder, I would be tempted to work with the armament figures below – they are only my own interpretation. I have based them in part on the changes suggested to have been made in ’61.

1858–1861 (my guess)

  • Gundeck: 36-8in/65cwt (Walker favoured this on the gundecks)
  • Middle Deck: 6-8in/65cwt, 30-32pdr/58cwt (a mixture is present in ’61, and I’m going with the Dundas 32pdr purely because they were new castings)
  • Main Deck: 38-32pdr/58cwt (I’ve gone with the heavier gun due to the implication of similarity with Victoria – the extra weight high up in the ship would make them prime candidates for replacement with the 40pdrs, as appears to be the case in ’61)
  • Weather Deck: 20-32pdr/42cwt, 1-68pdr/95cwt (the lower number of Winfield, but the Monck guns of Lambert as the gunnades just seem so out-of-place. The 68 is not in any question)

1861—1864 (my guess)

  • Gundeck: 36-8in/65cwt (no change)
  • Middle Deck: 6-8in/65cwt, 10-Armstrong 40pdr, 20-32pdr/58cwt (this feels like an odd mixture, though)
  • Main Deck: 38-Armstrong 40pdr
  • Weather Deck: 20-32pdr/42cwt, 1-Armstrong 110pdr

I hope to clear this confusion up in the future, and find some definitive information on the post-1861 armament. With luck later this year, coronavirus permitting, when I’m finally able to visit London again! If I find anything more conclusive, I will return and update this article with the new information.

Why HMS Marlborough?

Over the years, I have found that it is the developments in naval architecture starting in the late eighteenth-century, and especially the early nineteenth, that seem to most capture my interest. At the same time, the mainstream fascination with the Royal Navy of Nelson’s time, and through the Napoleonic Wars has somewhat lost its alure.

I find that I’m drawn to this time of rapid change in naval architecture. It saw the slow introduction of scientific principles to what had previously been the art of ship design. With that came rapid growth in the size of the wooden warships, and the addition of steam power. And finally, there came the gradual – at first – development of the iron-hulled ship. Within five years of the launch of HMS Warrior, the world’s first iron-hulled warship, the wooden ship had no further active part to play in the Royal Navy.

There are some fantastic photos of HMS Marlborough, taken throughout her entire life. The stark elegance of the lines of this period make a pleasing contrast to the elaborate carvings of the previous century. We also have numerous photos of Marlborough‘s near-sister Duke of Wellington. I like the prospect of the greater visual interest offered by the mixture of old and new types of cannon after the ’61 refit. So that is the version of the ship I will most likely attempt to model in 3D.

References for this article

  • Plan sheets NPB6611, NPB6612, NPB6613, NPB6614 & NPB6615, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich/Woolwich
  • Boxer, Edward Mournier. 1995 [1853]. Diagrams of Guns: A Set of Scaled Engineering Drawings of British Artillery Pieces in Service in 1853. W S Curtis Publishers. ISBN 978-0948216145
  • Lambert, Andrew. 1984. Battleships in Transition: The Creation of the Steam Battlefleet 1815—1860. Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0-85177-315-X
  • Winfield, Rif. 2014. British Warships in the Age of Sail 1817—1863. Seaforth Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84832-169-4
  • McConnell, David. 1988. British Smooth-Bore Artillery. PDF.

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2 thoughts on “The Armament of HMS Marlborough (1855)

  1. While the 8″ shell guns do not fire solid shot, they do not store filled shell on the gun decks (all is below deck in the shell rooms, and contained in individual copper lined wooden boxes). They do however also fire and are supplied with a 56lb hollow ‘naval’ shot – which can be safely stored in the open in shot garlands and parks in the open, or stowed efficiently in a shot locker.

    I have read a document from around 1850 which indicates that an allocation of shot to the 8″ guns was for the first 6 – 40 each of shot and shell, for the next 6 60 shot and 20 shell, and for the remainder 70 shot and 10 shell, which was also the normal allowance for 32pdrs. Pivots received a more than double allowance of ammunition in proportion 120 shot to 60 shell, with the shot for the 68pdr gun being a solid shot, rather than the hollow shot of the shell guns.

    The sectional density of the 56pdr shot from the 8″ gun was as high as that of the 32pdr gun, so little long range performance was lost – their filled shell was significantly lighter at either ~48 or 50lbs and although having a higher initial velocity carried less well to range and penetrated more poorly (and the fuse would fail most of the time following a graze if fired in ricochet and *never* survived two grazes)

    1. Hi David. Thanks for your insightful comment. This makes a lot of sense – I was somewhat dubious about the concept of ready-use shells near the guns! Hollow shot reconciles nicely with the notes on the plans, and I think that reinforces the uniform 65cwt argument for the gundeck.

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